NewsHe found it human to err

He found it human to err

Created: 09/30/2022, 5:14 p.m

Klaus Dörner, 2013 in seiner Hamburger Wohnung. imago images
Klaus Dörner, 2013 in his Hamburg apartment. imago images © Imago

The psychologist Klaus Dörner has campaigned not to exclude mentally ill people. An obituary

Life is lived forward and understood backward. Klaus Dörner consistently applied this wisdom of Kierkegaard to psychiatry. His study “Citizens and Irre” from 1969 is fundamental, with the central message that barracking the “unreasonable”, the “lunatic” and thus their disappearance from everyday community life is dangerous.

When he began his medical work in Hamburg in 1968, he encountered a psychiatric ward that had repressed its recent history. Those responsible after 1945 were all too involved in the crimes committed by German psychiatric institutions between 1933 and 1945. Years of tough fighting for the rehabilitation of the victims followed, who were denied recognition and compensation for too long.

Stubbornly and with great commitment he managed to ensure that the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial of 1946/47 was fully documented and in 2001 – with Angelika Ebbinghaus – he was able to publish the anthology “Annihilation and Healing – The Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial and its Consequences”.

These medical crimes were also possible because a soulless medical bureaucracy had access to the mentally ill people in the sanatorium and nursing homes. This historical experience justified Dörner’s deep skepticism about the permanent accommodation of the chronically mentally ill. And so he proved during his time as senior physician at the Westfälische Klinik in Gütersloh between 1980 and 1996 that long-term hospitalization of the chronically mentally ill is nonsensical and misanthropic and that all so-called “long-term patients” at the Gütersloh Klinik were able to live freely in their home community. In “End of the event: Beginnings of chronically ill psychiatry” you can read how the quality of life of the so-called long-term patients has developed.

From 1986 to 1996 Klaus Dörner held the chair for psychiatry and psychotherapy at the University of Witten/Herdecke. “The person is the only means in psychiatry that counts” – that was one of his tenets. He had a genuine interest in the other, the stranger, and a keen sense of the limits of understanding. The instructions for such an understanding of psychiatry are convincingly described in his textbook “To err is human”, written with Ursula Plog.

Klaus Dörner experienced what was probably the most difficult time in his professional life in 1990/91. He had to learn that a nurse at his clinic had killed patients. Dörner dealt openly with his own mistakes and wrote down his reflections on them and presented them in an impressive lecture in Berlin in 1992.

Klaus Dörner was never everyone’s darling. He was not wanted in Hamburg as chief physician. His consistent advocacy for the rights of mentally ill people was by no means undisputed. He said what he thought and did what he said. German psychiatry has lost a formative and inspiring personality. Klaus Dörner died in Gütersloh on September 25th. He was 88 years old.

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